Meet Elena Ferrante, World-Class Peekaboo Artist

I recently learned that the man I had always thought of as “the Beastie Boy with the high-pitched voice” sleeps, with his wife, Tamra Davis, in a four-poster bed beneath a highway of salvaged-wood beams and a bespoke crocheted chandelier in their 1853 Brooklyn town house. Ms. Davis is the author of a cookbook; Michael Diamond is coauthor of a Beastie Boys memoir due out in 2015.

The article about Mike D’s house came in the same week that also saw the publication of a book about only children. It was either a history of or an argument for them; I’m not sure which. The book itself was drowned out by the foofaraw it caused over whether, if you are a writer, it is better to have just one child or to have some other number of children. Among those who weighed in were Jane Smiley, Ayelet Waldman, and Zadie Smith. As far as I know, author Jennifer Weiner has not submitted her own opinion, but I can report that as I type, she was boning up for the evening’s airing of The Bachelorette.

This is the backdrop we readers are up against, and it’s a scene in which I am not above participating, and from which, as a writer, not occasionally I feel left out. (Doesn’t anyone want to know what I think about November versus December babies?) But that is not to say I don’t vacillate between despair and finding it all a little laughable.

Here’s something I feel nothing but certainty about: I want to kiss the ground that Italian novelist Elena Ferrante walks on. But that would require my ever finding her.

Ferrante is the author of six novels, four of which have been translated into English; the best-received one has been Days of Abandonment, the story of a southern Italian woman who is left by her lover of fifteen years. Ferrante is not a recluse so much as she is a wisp of smoke. She leaves no mark but her books. She writes them, sends them to her publisher, and then runs for cover. No author appearances. No conferences. Only the occasional written interview. She has intimated in these rare conversations that she is a mother and she grew up in Naples. She went to university and studied ancient Greek literature. We know not much more than that. She is an enigma of mythical cast.

In Italy, where Ferrante’s fiction is popular, some speculate that “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym for a more famous, possibly male writer. But her hard-core fans, this correspondent included, marvel at her dead-on depiction of the female experience and scoff at the possibility of the writer being a man. Her books are too alive, too lacking in sentimentality, too reflective of female truths to have been written by a man.

Her books are equally hard to pin down. They are tales of women in a world that is marred by poverty, violence, and childhood abuse. Her characters are contending with unloving mothers, wandering lovers, friends who shift shape and vanish. Yet they are never pathetic. “I see them not as women who are suffering, but as women who are struggling,” she has written.

The writing style is dry eyed, to the point. Nothing too clever or gimmicky. Just life in southern Italy, one day, usually shitty, after another. As the pages build up, something sneaky happens: The realism takes on a force that pulls you under and doesn’t let you come up for air, even after you’ve started other books (apologies to the two novels I am currently reading).

While her fiction is irrefutably tremendous (more on that in my next column), there is a distinct jolt of excitement that comes from reading Fragments: Elena Ferrante on Writing, Reading, and Anonymity, a very short collection of her professional correspondence. Europa Editions, her American publisher, released it, and it’s full of lines that articulate the magical power of the novel. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t,” she writes.

She has no interest in becoming a pop star–style author whose books hang out on a merchandise table. It is her stories, not her, to which she wants people to relate. “I believe that the true reader shouldn’t be confused with the fan,” she writes. “The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.”

Two years ago, a journalist from Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera asked Ferrante, “In short may we know who you are?” Her reply was crisp, and only slightly withering: “Elena Ferrante. I’ve published six books in twenty years. Isn’t that sufficient?”

While her detractors might find her approach lacking in fun or humor, Ferrante is far from a pill who takes herself too seriously. What she does is the opposite: She takes herself out the picture.


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